Call for action as post-poll violence victims in Kenya speak out
The testimonies of women who survived sexual violence during post-election conflict in 2008 should be heard, say advocates. The magnitude of the crimes committed against women because of their gender must be recorded and prosecuted to prevent such violence from occurring again.
“We have realised there is no political intention to ensure the perpetrators of gender-based and sexual violence are brought to book, says Patricia Nyaundi, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (Fida).
In presenting its findings, the Waki Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence described rapes committed against women, children and some men; carried out by gangs of thugs, by neighbours and by the security forces. The Commission states that the evidence it collected represented a tiny fraction of the full extent of gender-based violence — just 31 women came forward with testimony of this nature.
A single facility, the Gender Violence Recovery Centre at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital, reported attending to over 650 cases of sexual violence during the chaos. Anecdotal evidence suggests thousands of other women across the country survived similar violence.
FIDA is one of a group of organisations working to document gender-based and sexual violence in the aftermath of 2007 General Election as well as during other conflicts that have rocked Kenya, such as the Mount Elgon conflict where armed militia for months terrorised residents over land disputes.
“By documenting these testimonies, we are taking this opportunity to give women who underwent horrific ordeals a chance to tell their stories, to create historical evidence that this actually happened.
“This kind of evidence will force this country to move from denial and accept what happened during that period,” says Nyaundi.
“Violence against women has been systematic and entrenched in our society, but the post-election period saw an unprecedented number of women subjected to widespread sexual violence,” says Rosemary Okello.
“Many women were sexually assaulted, gang raped or sodomised. Many of these acts of sexual violence occurred in the presence of the women’s spouses, children or parents causing trauma, humiliation and stress suffered by the survivors and their families.”
Okello is executive director of another partner in the documentary project, the African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWCFS), which promotes diversity, gender equity, social justice and development in Africa through media, training and research. Also participating are the NGOs Centre for Rights Education and Awareness and Women Fighting Against Aids in Kenya.
The documentation project is supported by the Urgent Action Fund (UAF-Africa), which has wide experience working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern and North Eastern Uganda, Liberia and Zimbabwe, providing rapid response grants to women and human rights organisations.
“Women survivors become guiltier than the perpetrators of the violence,” says UAF executive director Jessica Nkuuhe.
“The women fear to share what they have been through because they are afraid of stigma and being deserted by their families, especially their spouses. They thus shut down and unfortunately this ordeal eats at their very existence, giving rise to depression and eventually some lose the will to live and die miserable.”
Nkuuhe says the documentary project is an off-shoot of similar endeavours in northern and northeastern Uganda, Liberia and Zimbabwe through which survivors of sexual and gender-based violence have been able to share their experiences with each other.
“We brought together survivors of sexual violence to a conference. Before that most of these women had kept their experiences silent. When they met other women who had been through similar horrific ordeals, they were able to open up and share. Sharing their stories provides an avenue for the survivors to seek help to heal after such a traumatising ordeal,” Nkuuhe says.
Kenyan member of parliament Millie Odhiambo says unless women speak out, sexual offences committed in times of conflict will go unpunished.
As Kenya takes account of what happened in 2008 and prosecutes perpetrators, the gender-based violence dimension must be brought into focus.
“As a country, we were not prepared for the level of gender-based and sexual violence that was witnessed. By documenting this, it shall provide a basis for our government to develop policies on preparedness to handle such scenarios. The evidence will also act as shock therapy for Kenya and we shall never forget what happened to these survivors,” Odhiambo says.
Judy Waguma of AWCFS says despite the existence of legislation such as the Sexual Offences Act, there has been minimal prosecution of sexual offences during the post-election chaos.
“During situations of crisis — as evidenced by the post-election violence —the government response to sexual violence is very limited, and it is usually the civil society organisations that have to step in to design and implement responses. Therefore there is a marked lack of access to justice for survivors of sexual violence.”
Odhiambo says the project to document testimonies comes at an opportune time, ahead of the entry of International Criminal Court investigators who will carry out a fact-finding mission on Kenya’s post-election violence, after the government failed to act on findings and recommendations of the Waki Commission.
ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo will be gathering evidence for prosecutions of those “most responsible” for the violence. The documentation project should be an important part of making sure responsibility for gender-based crimes is not neglected.